The Tortie Stone

The Tortie Stone in its landscape setting.

The Tortie Stone

Close-up view of a cup-and-ring motif on the Tortie Stone.

The Tortie Stone

Drawing of the rock art on the Tortie Stone, by Stan Beckensall.
Source: Reproduced from Beckensall 2002.
Copyright: Stan Beckensall.

The Tortie Stone
Original Location: RSPB Geltsdale Reserve, nr Hallbankgate
Current Location: In situ
Theme: Ritual >
Period: Prehistoric - Neolithic >
Date: Roughly c.2500 BC

What is it?
The Tortie Stone is a large earthfast sandstone  boulder onto which a number of circular cupmarks, including three with surrounding rings, have been carved. These motifs, known as ‘cup and ring marks’ date from the Neolithic period, and are commonly found in some parts of northern England, notably in north Northumberland where some very complex decorated panels can be seen, though only one other example is known in the vicinity of the Tortie stone. No-one knows what the carvings meant to those who produced them; explanations range from functional symbols that acted as some kind of signposts, to religious motifs of huge spiritual significance to those who made and used them.

What is its relevance to the North Pennines?
Although many comparable examples of cup-and-ring art can be seen at the opposite (south-east) extremity of the North Pennines, the Tortie Stone and its near companion (a massive flat-topped outcrop known as Tortie 2) are the only known examples in the northern sector of the AONB. There may have been more here that have been lost through subsequent quarrying or agricultural improvement, but probably not many. The fact that the markings on the Tortie Stone were only recognised as late as 1987 does suggest that other examples in remote North Pennines locations may await discovery, but for now it seems that the Tortie examples are pretty much on their own.

The Altogether Archaeology project undertook excavations here in 2011 to investigate whether the Tortie Stone was part of a stone setting, as other stones in the vicinity appeared to form a rectangle. However, although a single cup mark was found on one other stone it appears that all the stones were in their natural positions where they had been dumped by the glaciers at the end of the Ice Age (certainly the Tortie Stone was not a fallen ‘standing stone’ as had previously been suggested). Perhaps people in the Neolithic also wondered whether the arrangement of boulders here was the work of their ancestors rather than of nature, giving the site peculiar significance to them and leading them to create the cup-and-ring marks.

The excavations also searched for anything datable that might have enabled us to suggest a date for the carvings, but sadly no datable samples were recovered. Several flint artefacts were found in the immediate vicinity, but these ranged in date from the Mesolithic to the early Bronze Age, so cannot be used to date the rock art, although it is certainly interesting that people seem to have gathered here over such a long period. Perhaps the place was of some special significance to many generations of prehistoric people, or alternatively maybe it was just a convenient stopping off place on some long-lost route between other places. Despite the best endeavours of the Altogether Archaeology volunteers, the Tortie Stone retains her secrets.

Why is it important?
We will probably never know for sure why Neolithic people chose to embellish the Tortie stone with cup and ring marks, but whatever the reason the site is important in demonstrating a Neolithic presence in an area where it is otherwise unknown. Any attempt to explain the purpose or ‘meaning’ of cup and ring marks in areas where they are more common, such as in parts of Upper Teesdale and Baldersdale at the opposite corner of the North Pennines, must also account for their presence at outlying sites like Tortie.

Further Information
    Text References:
  • Frodsham, P. 1989. Two newly discovered cup and ring marked stones from Penrith and Hallbankgate, with a gazetteer of all known megalithic carvings in Cumbria. Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society.  2nd series, vol 89. p1-19.
  • Beckensall, S. 2002.  Prehistoric Rock Art in Cumbria. Stroud; Tempus.
  • Vyner, B. 2013 | The Tortie Stone revisited. Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmorland Antiquarian and Archaeological Society.  3rd series, vol, 13. p17-32.

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